Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 3
 Issue 7 
9 June
2003

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Claire Denis' J'ai pas sommeil (I Can't Sleep, 1994)FRANCE
Resisting the lure of ultimate enjoyment
Claire Denis' J'ai pas sommeil
(I Can't Sleep, 1994)

According to Todd McGowan, J'ai pas sommeil is a film that shows how satisfaction can be achieved through partial objects and the act of desiring itself, despite the fact that ultimate enjoyment is impossible to attain.


Ultimate enjoyment as ideology

Claire Denis' J'ai pas sommeil (I Can't Sleep, 1994) begins with a depiction of enjoyment that seems to have no narrative connection to the rest of the events in the film. After first just hearing laughter over a blank screen, we see two police officers laughing loudly while flying in a helicopter over Paris. The film never explicitly refers back to this scene, and yet this show of pleasure establishes the tone for what follows. The Paris that Denis presents is a world in which enjoyment seems to proliferate everywhere, even though on no occasion do the film's three main characters seem to be enjoying themselves.

These three primary characters—Daïga (Yekaterina Golubeva), Camille (Richard Courcet) and Théo (Alex Descas)—all evince a sense of dissatisfaction that stems from their encounter with a pleasure that they cannot access. J'ai pas sommeil follows Daïga's arrival in Paris from Lithuania, Théo's preparations to leave Paris for Martinique and Camille's experiences as a transvestite dancer in the city's gay subculture. The dissatisfaction of all three manifests itself most conspicuously in the boredom that seems to predominate in their lives.

At the same time, the predominance of scenes and images of other people having a good time leaves these characters feeling as if the ultimate enjoyment that others are experiencing is eluding them. As a result, they lash out with violence or resort to fantasy in order to discover such pleasure for themselves. These paths fail, however, because they succumb to the lure of an ultimate enjoyment, an enjoyment that doesn't lack anything, and it is through this lure that Paris—and late capitalism in general—seduces its subjects. Contemporary capitalist ideology sustains its hold over subjects by producing this kind of investment in complete enjoyment. Because we invest ourselves in this ideal and the promise it holds out, we accept the drabness and the dissatisfaction of our everyday reality.

Through the depiction of their respective failures, Denis' film reveals both the illusory nature of the image of ultimate enjoyment and the depth of its power over us. It illustrates that there is no outside—no space beyond the world of dissatisfaction and lack—but this doesn't mean we cannot enjoy anything. When we succumb to the image of an ultimate enjoyment that we necessarily lack, we miss the partial enjoyment that is accessible for us. We can still derive enjoyment from partial objects, objects that do not promise us completion. As Joan Copjec notes, "In place of the All, the original Plenum, we have these little objects, which are the source of our immortality, and partial incarnations of a lost[…]One."[1] But when the idea of "the All" or an ultimate enjoyment has a hold on us, the possibility for this kind of partial enjoyment recedes.

On the outside of enjoyment

All three of the main characters are outsiders in Paris (Daïga from Lithuania, Camille and Théo from Martinique), and this outsider status exacerbates their sense of missing the pleasure that the city contains. For instance, excessive enjoyment bombards Daïga during a sequence in which she walks through the streets of Paris, when a stranger accosts her and makes sexual advances. In her attempt to flee from him, she enters a movie theatre. She soon discovers that this is a porn theatre, and that her flight from excessive enjoyment has only led her into more of the same. Here, enjoyment seems inescapable, and at the same time it remains the enjoyment of the Other. Similarly, when he is riding on the Paris metro, this excessive enjoyment overwhelms Camille, as we see numerous billboards running together through the windows and hear a cacophony of screaming voices, loud sirens and the din of the metro itself.

It is this encounter with the enjoyment of the Other that drives the actions of the main characters. Théo's plan to go to Martinique, for example, derives from his fantasy that he can access the kind of enjoyment that he sees but can't experience in Paris only by returning there. He imagines a Martinique where everything is there for the taking, where one has no need of money or even clothes. This fantasy of Martinique is his response to the enjoyment that Paris flaunts and yet denies him, but ironically it indicates the extent to which he has fallen for the city's lure.

Rather than fantasising about Martinique as his brother Théo does, Camille reacts to the enjoyment all around him with violence. Violence offers the subject a way of enjoying at the same time as it wipes out the enjoyment of the Other. This is why it is so attractive for a subject who feels him- or herself on the outside of enjoyment. Both of these solutions, however, fail in the end, because they remain blind to the illusoriness of any form of ultimate enjoyment.

The constitutive lack

Throughout J'ai pas sommeil, we are continually confronted with the illusion of an unrestrained, ubiquitous enjoyment, but in each encounter with this enjoyment the film goes on to show its limits and partiality— its inherent incompleteness. By emphasising that an unrestrained enjoyment is only illusory, the film works to break its hold on us. Denis accomplishes this on a formal level through her use of sound and editing, as we see, for instance, in the scene just after the opening in the police helicopter. The camera tracks Daïga's car as she is driving into Paris while seemingly non-diegetic music plays over the credits. However, a subsequent shot inside the car shows Daïga turning off her cassette player, which stops the music and thereby locates it within the world of the film. This shift indicates the partiality and localised nature of an enjoyment that first seemed unbound by any spatial restrictions. While presenting music as initially non-diegetic and then revealing it to be diegetic is not uncommon within contemporary cinema, here it relates to the fundamental structure of the film itself, which constantly stresses the partiality of enjoyment. Just as there is no ubiquitous music, there is no full or complete enjoyment— only the illusion of it.

This also becomes evident formally toward the end of the film, just before the police apprehend Camille. A lengthy tracking shot follows Camille as he leaves a club and walks down a Paris street. As the camera trails him, it seems connected to no particular point of view. However, just after this tracking shot, Denis reverses the camera and allows us to see a police car that is driving slowly down the road following Camille. This latter shot places the earlier one in relief, allowing us to understand that what seemed to be an objective tracking shot was actually a PoV shot from the perspective of the police. As with Denis' use of sound at the beginning of J'ai pas sommeil, this subjectivisation of a seemingly objective shot occurs regularly in contemporary cinema; here again, though, it emerges directly out of the specific filmic and narrative content. By attaching a seemingly objective shot to a diegetic PoV, Denis stresses the impossibility of an all-seeing look and an all-encompassing enjoyment. The illusion of seeing without a localised perspective supports the fantasy of an unlimited enjoyment, and this is precisely what J'ai pas sommeil combats at every turn.

Denis' film leaves spectators in the same position as the characters relative to the prospect of enjoyment. Most people go to the cinema in order to partake in the fantasy of an ultimate enjoyment. Cinema allows spectators to feel, as Christian Metz says, "'all-present' as perceiver" and thus not beset by a sense of absence or lack.[2] And when films do create a sense of lack in the spectator, they usually do so in order to keep alive the fantasy of its transcendence in a sense of completion.

Traditional Hollywood films—especially mystery films—establish spectators in a position of desire with the promise of a denouement that will completely satisfy that desire: one lacks knowledge of the killer's identity, and the film's conclusion provides that knowledge, thereby delivering satisfaction. In the Aesthetics of Film, Jacques Aumont identifies this structure as the defining characteristic of classical Hollywood narrative: "Every classical narrative inaugurates the captivation of its spectator by carving out an internal crevice between a desiring subject and his or her object of desire.

The entire art of narration then consists of regulating the constant pursuit of this object of desire— a desire whose accomplishment is always postponed, blocked, menaced, and delayed until the narrative's end."[3] But J'ai pas sommeil does not regulate desire in this way. Instead, Denis creates a film with a trajectory that clearly rejects the fantasy of an ultimate enjoyment, the kind implied by the typical conclusion of a cinematic narrative.

Although J'ai pas sommeil establishes a mystery surrounding the identity of the so-called "granny killer," the solution in not presented as a way of quenching our desire. Just halfway through the film, the audience learns that Camille is the killer in question. This revelation comes without any real build-up or suspense, and consequently one experiences no satisfaction in the revelation. The very matter-of-fact mode of the revelation—we simply see Camille and his lover in the midst of committing the eponymous criminal act—destroys any sense that it might provide satisfaction. The film's narrative trajectory neither hints at nor delivers a satisfying resolution.

The peripheral status of the mystery throughout J'ai pas sommeil further impairs our ability to fantasise about its solution. At no point prior to the depiction of Camille's guilt does the film directly explore the mystery or the main characters' involvement in it. We first hear about the at-large granny killer on the radio; then we see a newspaper headline about it and hear people discussing it. The mystery ends up uniting all of the film's distinct threads, and yet the ordinary events in the characters' lives—Daïga looking for a place to stay, Camille dancing, Théo installing bookshelves—entirely overshadow it. By consigning the mystery of the granny killer to a peripheral status in the structure of the film, Denis implicitly cautions the viewer against expecting a satisfying resolution to our desire. The film's emphasis is on desire itself rather than on the idea of narrative resolution in a moment of ultimate enjoyment.

The drabness of the ordinary

The absence of any such "ultimate enjoyment" becomes most apparent in the way J'ai pas sommeil characterises Camille and his murderous acts. Typically, films represent serial killers as enjoying themselves too much—as enjoying without any restraint. Killing provides such figures with the kind of horrible enjoyment that law-abiding citizens necessarily lack. This becomes most evident in serial killers such as Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), for whom eating his victims is a mode of the ultimate transgressive enjoyment. When watching Lecter on the screen, it is difficult not to love him for his seemingly unrestrained ability to enjoy himself. Camille, however, is completely unlike Hannibal Lecter. Rather than deriving extraordinary enjoyment from committing acts of murder, he kills with the same ennui and absence of enjoyment that he lives the rest of his life.

The first time we see Camille attack an old woman, his partner knocks the woman to the floor just inside her apartment. Camille then removes his belt and strangles her with it, performing this act without any emotion at all. Adding to the scene's lack of affect, Denis depicts the act through a long shot. Not even murder allows Camille to access the enjoyment that he feels himself to be missing. In fact, he is so removed emotionally from his own act that he leaves the old woman alive, which is what eventually allows the police to identify him.

Thus, even where we might imagine the ultimate transgressive enjoyment, J'ai pas sommeil depicts ordinariness. As a result, we see that there is no such ultimate enjoyment, no enjoyment that would provide completion. We cannot avoid our own incompleteness or the incompleteness of our capacity to enjoy. However, it is precisely the belief in the fantasy of complete enjoyment that renders everyday reality so ordinary and bereft of enjoyment. Ordinariness and a lack of any enjoyment predominate in J'ai pas sommeil because of the power of this fantasy. Daïga, Théo and Camille all believe in another place or another mode of existence that would deliver them entirely from this dissatisfaction— but it is this fantasy that sustains their dissatisfaction.

The recognition that there is no ultimate enjoyment does not imply that one must adapt to prevailing social forces and give up desire for the sake of the reality principle. In fact, the fantasy of an ultimate enjoyment beyond the symbolic structure is precisely what allows subjects to exist within the drabness of ordinary reality. By offering the illusion of another place or another time of complete or total enjoyment, this fantasy encourages adjustment to current social conditions. However, if one gives up this fantasy, one has the potential to discover enjoyment within the everyday, thereby stripping it of its ordinariness.

Through the brief connection that develops between Daïga and Camille, Denis indicates the kind of enjoyment that is possible— a partial enjoyment, an enjoyment of a partial object. After learning that Camille is the granny killer, Daïga follows him from the hotel to a café. At the café, she stands next to him at the counter and orders a coffee. When Camille passes her the sugar for her coffee, we see a close-up of their hands, and for a brief moment their hands touch and remain together. After each quickly pulls away, Camille evinces a very slight smile and then tells the clerk that he will pay for Daïga's cup of coffee. But even in this moment of ostensible connection, Denis stresses the barrier that exists between them: when Camille leans forward to speak to the clerk, we see Camille and Daïga separated by a post. Here, the two characters are able to share a moment of enjoyment, but Denis uses the mise-en-scène to underline its partiality.

Enjoying desire

Through its sustained insistence on the inherent partiality of enjoyment, J'ai pas sommeil offers a path that avoids the dissatisfaction that seems always to accompany desire. This is a path that always remains open to the subject. As Lacan puts it, "The subject does not simply satisfy a desire, it enjoys desiring, and this is an essential dimension of its enjoyment."[4] There is no object that can satisfy desire—no ultimate enjoyment—but one can find satisfaction through desire itself and its partial object. This is the possibility that Denis' film attempts to access. Through its break with the form of the traditional mystery or serial killer film, J'ai pas sommeil demands that we relate to our desire in a new way: enjoying our desire itself rather than the fantasy of an object that eludes it.

Todd McGowan

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Also of interest
About the author

Todd McGowan teaches film and critical theory in the English Department at the University of Vermont. He is the author of The Feminine "No!" (SUNY Press, 2001) and The End of Dissatisfaction (SUNY Press, forthcoming 2003), and co-editor of Lacan and Contemporary Film (Other Press, forthcoming 2004).


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Footnotes

1. Joan Copjec, Imagine There's No Woman: Ethics and Sublimation (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), 55.return to text

2. Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and Cinema, trans Celia Britton, Annwyl Williams, Ben Brewster and Alfred Guzzetti (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), 54; emphasis in original.return to text

3. Jacques Aumont, Alain Bergala, Michel Marie and Marc Vernet, Aesthetics of Film, trans and rev Richard Neupert (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992), 217.return to text

4. Jacques Lacan, Le Séminaire, livre V: Les formations de l'inconscient, 1957-1958, ed Jacques-Alain Miller (Paris: Seuil, 1998), 313, my translation.return to text

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